May 5, 2006 · Tim Wu
Xiong Chengyu, a personal advisor to Chinese President Hu Jintao on internet policy, came to New York briefly and on Tuesday we met at Columbia law school.
It was a casual meeting and we chatted for quite a while. Anyone affiliated with the Chinese government is usually quite formal, so I wore a suit for the occasion, and worried about my lack of a welcoming committee. But Xiong was of the new breed, and preempting me, he wore jeans with a jacket, like a 60-year old internet hipster. In conversation it turned out he was something of an internet utopian himself. He spoke of a network of great transformative power for China’s economy, culture, and society. A network that would take China out of its present cage, its underdeveloped version of itself. That would create applications to match and compete with U.S. versions, and even interestingly, a content industry that can best Hollywood.
But then why so many controls, I asked him? He said, “to provide room,” and to “make development possible.” I didn’t quite understand what he meant by that. He urged me to pay less attention to the present, to the controls of today, and to think about China’s future. I asked, but then what’s the long term goal — something like Singapore, more like Europe, or the United States? He said, no, probably something in the middle, something Chinese, but in the end better.
After a while, something struck me. Like many of the dreamers in our book he was so deeply convinced of the internet’s potential to liberate China from its lack of development that he was willing to overlook details nearer the present. He was buoyed by the same kind of optimism in internet progress that you see in the West, just directed to a different goal: bringing China back where it should be. That, for him, made hard questions easy. I admired his spirit but it also made me a little nervous.
On his way out he wanted to buy some of the “new” books on law or media or the internet at the bookstore that can be harder to find in China. I took him there and he bought my book (shameless, yes). He also bought Lessig’s 3 books, and Paul Starr’s “the Creation of the Media.” Neither Glenn Reynold’s nor Yochai Benkler’s new books were in the bookstore (Labyrinth Books, near Columbia).
I wondered if I should warn him that our China chapter is quite critical, but I didn’t, and off he went.